Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Track 5: China Girl

With the surname of "Nguyen", Kuelan Nguyen is unlikely a girl of Chinese descent. Kuelan Nguyen is the China Girl in "China Girl" who was at the Chateau with French performer Jacques Higelin with whom she had a child and would later marry despite Iggy's courtship. Somehow "Vietnamese Girl" doesn't really roll off the tongue, and the year being 1977, most of the world would have some issues related to the Vietnam War which just ended 2 years earlier.

The interactions between Iggy and Nguyun were complicated as they spoke no common language and communicated without language mostly. Iggy pursued Nguyen and when he confessed his feelings to her, she responded with "Shhhh...". This concept was of course incorporated into the song's lyrics.

Originally titled, "Borderline", Iggy and Bowie penned this pop hit with lyrics dealing with desire, culture corruption (European / Western world dominance) with a brief reference to Nazi-ism. Both Iggy and Bowie had some Nazi dalliances independently.

The stand-out instrument on this track is a toy-piano which was owned by then-8-year old daughter of Laurent Thibault. As with most Bowie works, the guitar production on this song is top notch, the lead guitar part sounding very balanced. Notice in the background the hammering, distorted Baldwin piano. Later in the song, electronic strings add a very appropriately cold crescendo.
Tony Visconti, in his autobiography said: "Iggy often started a song singing very quietly and then gradually built up to a scream (as in ‘China Girl’), distorting the microphone preamplifier. This was one of those ‘happy accidents’ again, because the vocal wouldn’t be the same if it were any other way now. Usually there was no take two to correct the over-modulation. I love this album! This over- modulation is obvious when Iggy sings "WHITES of my EYES".

"China Girl" was the song that finally put some real money into Iggy's pocket after David Bowie recorded and released it. (This was not the last time that Bowie would record an Iggy song himself thereby netting Iggy some songwriting royalties, see "Neighborhood Threat", "Tonight", "Don't Look Down" and others).


comandante said...

that's a cool story. why can't my life be like that? i need to be more like iggy.

willsy said...

Another great post. Was thinking I'd never see another one for a little while.

Tom said...

Hello. Just to say that this is a great blog and your posts are highly intresting. Thnak you!!! Would you continue with Lust For Life? It would be also interesting to write about Zombie Birdhouse periot of Mr.Ostenberg. I find everything around "The Breaking Point Tour" - Brooklyn - very fascinating. Thanx again!

Anonymous said...

In the title of this subtle song, I also see a play on words, China girl: the reference to Asia but also to the delicate and precious material that is china, porcelain...
fm Lo

Zeke said...

This is a fun post. Thanks for putting it up. First off every time I've seen the song writing credits it has been jointly credited to Iggy and Bowie. One assumes that Iggy did more of the lyrics, but I'm not sure anyone knows for sure. They are slightly different. Notably Iggy sings: "Jimmy, just you shut your mouth", while Bowie sings "Baby, just you shut your mouth" ... does this indicate that Iggy wrote the words, or just that he frequently interprets songs in a more personal way (listen to Metallic KO, for instance).

So, on to the lyrics. It is impossible that the lyrics are not equally or even mostly about heroin. Supposedly both Iggy and David were pretty strung out and one of the reasons for the move to Berlin was to get away from the drugs and dry out in a distant city.

When one reads the lyrics the heroin angle is completely obvious. "China White" of course was the very popular nickname for high quality heroin at this time ("Mexican brown" and "Tar" being some other lesser quality types)

"I'm just a wreck without my China Girl"
... junkie without heroin is messed up

"Wake up in the morning there is no China Girl .. I'd hear hearts beating"
... again, bad to wake up w/ no heroin. Intense sense of sickness (heart beating, seeing stars) without morning fix.

"I could pretend that nothing really meant too much" "Like Marlon Brando" when I'd look at my China girl.

...Here the author is remembering how strong and happy he felt being a junkie and waking up to start dosing himself. Heroin intoxication is typified by a subtle euphoria, feeling of the body slipping away, etc.

"It's in the whites of my eyes"
... jaundice, and yellowing of the whites of the eyes is a common side effect of intravenious heroin injection...

"when I get excited my little China girl says, Jimmy, just you shut your mouth. She says shhhhh".
... heroin, after a brief euphoric rush makes the user silent and near sleep state. Junkies call it 'nodding'

Anyway, it's funny to read this story about the Vietnamese girl. Not sure if it was made up by a clever publicist after it became a hit (I suspect) or if there is some element of truth in it. But there is NO WAY that the song China Girl is not in part (mostly) about heroin.

Rob J said...

A severely overlooked album.
It is often forgotten when it was originally released in 1977,it was hated by long term Iggy fans who thought Ig was Bowie's puppet.

Even Lester Bangs reviewed the album with extreme hostility, and even called it "the sound of a dead man". But let's not forget that a majority of his output has been viewed with disdain.

A marvellous album, nevertheless.

Ig said of "The Idiot" that it was James Brown meets Kraftwerk.
How folks must have laughed back then in 1976/77. Three years after its' release, most UK groups from that period used it for their own template, namely Siouxie Sue, Magazine and Joy Division.

Frank Black said it was his favourite album of all time.

It is also one of the saddest album to be recorded. You would have to had a heart of stone not to be moved by "Dum Dum Boys" and "Mass Production". Ig learnt his lessons well from Sinatra circa "Only The Lonely".

One final note, "The Idiot" was the last album Ian Curtis was to ever hear on one dreadful day in May 1980....

Philippe Laurichesse said...

"Viet girl" would be the equivalent of "China girl." "Vietnamese girl" is the equivalent of "Chinese girl". It seems that many white people don't understand that there is a difference in tone between, say, "China man" and "Chinese man". Not surprising.

Also, there are a lot Vietnamese who are ethnically Chinese. But that would be giving Iggy Pop and Bowie too much credit.